Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Xinchejian hackerspace as being Chinese-government funded. This is not the case.
In a future world of overpopulated, smog-filled cities and self-aware appliances, what will the everyday objects that frustrate and delight us—our gadgets—look like? Simone Rebaudengo, an Italian user interface designer based in Shanghai, isn't just dreaming them up. He's actually building the prototypes.
When Rebaudengo isn't working his day job at the Shanghai studio of Frog, a San Francisco-based design firm, he invents gizmos for futures that, like the best sci-fi, seem far-flung and immediately recognizable as products of our own age at the same time.
"I try to point at plausible futures that question what happens today and I use these props as ways to get people to explore them and to raise some questions in them," Rebaudengo wrote me in an email.
Futurists of a similar ilk have recently designed catalogues with oddities like panda jerky for sale and photoshopped signs warning against taking selfies with smart contact lenses, but Rebaudengo does these projects one better by manufacturing the prototypes himself.
Here are just a few of the raddest gizmos Rebaudengo has built for use in various imagined futures.
Brad, the Addicted Toaster
Imagine a world where dwindling resources have forced humanity to tighten our belts when it comes to manufacturing and buying commodities. In this vision of the future, products can't be owned, only shared. Brad the toaster, a product of this age, is programmed to love being used—addicted, in a sense.
Brad is connected to other toasters in a peer to peer network (we might call it the IoT, or the Internet of Toasters), and measures how much it's being used compared to the other toasters in its network. If it's being underused, Brad feels peer pressure—heh—and "decides" to move to another host that will use it more. The neglected toaster alerts the post office, which sends someone to pick him up and ship him to a household more in need of toast.
"I was trying to question the way we consume objects by building something that questions how we consume things by sharing itself without us really wanting to, as people are really bad at [sharing]," Rebaudengo explained.
In 2012, Rebaudengo built a network of five toasters, including Brad, using Arduino circuit boards and Xively (formerly known as Pachube), an Internet of Things platform for businesses, while at London-based design firm Umbrellium. The network is currently "on pause," according to its website, but you can still apply to host a toaster. Don't hold your breath, though, because there's a waiting list of 15 people.
The Machine that Doesn't Really Know What It Wants but Wants More
If robots ever become self-aware, they might not wipe us out as some fear. Instead, the cute robots in our homes could just act like whiny little human babies and express unknown desires that we must fulfill in a language that we can't understand.
"The machine that really doesn't know what it wants but wants more" is made up of an Arduino circuit board, a single LED light, three knobs, and a cardboard box. The machine is programmed to set values that are satisfied by turning the knobs once it's turned on. The values are randomly changed once satisfied, so the human operator never knows which knob needs to be turned. The LED blinks when the machine gets what it wants.
"It is kind of a baby, or a like a druggy Tamagotchi with no screen, because you do not really understand what it wants as it has no way of communicating it; you only see that a light turns on for a while but you don't know why," Rebaudengo wrote. "It doesn't have a clear function beside finding satisfaction for itself, and the user in front of it is just a disoriented helper in the system."
The end result is a confusing game of desire, misunderstanding, and satisfaction with a machine that we can't really understand. Is it some kind of weird robot sex thing? We don't know for sure.
Smog Masks that Digitize Our Hidden Expressions
Climate change is quickly becoming a terrifying lived reality. In regions sometimes consumed by smog, like Beijing, wearing surgical masks that filter out harmful particulates has become common practice for people venturing outside.
Face masks are popular for reasons other than pollution. Some wearers believe they will protect them from illnesses, and it's been suggested that some people wear them just because they're shy. Chinese designer Ying Peng even integrated the iconic masks into a collection he dubbed "Smog Couture" this year.
Rebaudengo's UnMask design conjures a future where surgical masks have become the norm around the globe for whatever reason, resulting in a world where our facial expressions are hidden from each other all of the time, unless we're indoors.
"We wanted to build something that is real enough to seem like a plausible product that is out there," Rebaudengo stated. "How would you read someone else's subtle facial reaction to your words? How would you have a conversation when you barely can see each other? How would the simple act of exchanging a smile happen between two people crossing paths?"
In collaboration with Shanghai-based hackerspace Xinchejian, sponsored in part by Frog
and the Chinese government, Rebaudengo tore apart surgical masks with pollution filters and retrofitted them with LED displays using an Arduino board and some cheap tech that ends up costing five dollars per mask.
"Inside the mask there is only an LED and light sensor," Rebaudengo wrote. "The LED flashes and the sensor detects the amount of reflection for different things like teeth or when you go 'oooo.'" The mask has to be calibrated for each new user.As the above demo video notes, the mask, just like Rebaudengo's other creations, is a hypothetical tool for a non-hypothetical future. And, like that future, they are wonderful and terrifying all at once.